A lot of “Downton Abbey’s” appeal lies in the glamorous Edwardian costumes and high-class romantic entanglements of the Crawley family. But viewers are also hooked on a less fashionable storyline going on downstairs: the humble romance that’s blossomed between valet John Bates (Brendan Coyle) and maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt). As Anna fell in love with Mr. Bates, only to see him framed and locked up for murdering his estranged wife Vera last season, Froggatt won our hearts… as well as an Emmy nomination.
With Season 3 of “Downton” about to debut here in America, we spoke with Froggatt about the detective work Anna does this season to exonerate her love (she calls it “Anna Bates Investigates”), the day she arrived on the set to find Shirley MacLaine singing, and why she doesn’t mind being stuck in a maid’s uniform while the Crawley daughters get to lounge around in beautiful gowns.
Last we saw Anna, her beloved Mr. Bates was in prison facing a life sentence. What’s Anna’s mental state heading into Season 3?
I think she starts Season 3 much more positive. At the end of Season 2, Mr. Bates has been reprieved from the death sentence; her world is about to collapse, and then they have this hope there. So at least she’s got something to work towards, which is to free her man and clear his name. She’s trying to find evidence and find some crack in the story that will clear his name. Once she has a purpose, she feels good about that, because at least she can move forward in some way.
So Anna’s playing detective a little bit this season?
Yes, it’s “Anna Bates Investigates.” [Laughs] That’s what I like to call it. Yeah, she is a little bit. Obviously, you see the struggles she and Mr. Bates are going through, being apart from each other. And you do see a bit of a dark side to Mr. Bates this season as well. So there are some interesting things for them this season.
Viewers have really fallen for Anna and Mr. Bates. Why do you think they get so swept up by that romance?
Oh, I don’t know; it’s just an absolute pleasure that they do. I think the Anna-and-Bates love story mirrors the upstairs Matthew-and-Mary story. But it was a pleasant surprise to me that people have taken them to heart so much, because they’re not the glamorous couple, you know? But I think what they do have, and what we try to put across, is their relationship is built on the real deal. It’s built on a mutual respect, a friendship, a complete faith in each other. And their love has grown out of that. They’re the kind of qualities you’d hope would make a lifelong relationship. There’s something quite endearing about that, the love and loyalty they have for each other, through thick and thin and all of these challenges that life throws at them.
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Season 3 also brings the very real possibility of financial ruin for the Crawleys. Does the downstairs crew get any sense of that at all?
Anna does, because of her role in the house. She’s very close to Lady Mary and to the goings-on upstairs as well as downstairs. But there are only a select few that have an idea that there may be trouble ahead. It’s not common knowledge. Julian’s writing mirrors what was happening at that time. Lots of estates, like our fictional Downton, were really struggling to keep going after the war. Things had changed so much, financially and just in terms of the loss of people during the war, the loss of our men. Their world had been flipped upside down, and quite a few estates really struggled to move on from that.
Of course we’ve heard about Shirley MacLaine joining the cast. What does she add to the show this season?
We were just so thrilled; it’s so amazing. To have Dame Maggie [Smith] with us, and then to add Shirley MacLaine to that mix, we were all so excited. And she is such a great lady. She seemed to really enjoy her time with us. She was vibrant and fun to be around, and her and Maggie were great together. The scenes they did together are just incredible. They got on so well. She was a great addition to the family, and we hope she comes back!
We spoke to Rob James-Collier, and he said he wasn’t even in scenes with the two of them, but he came to set just to watch them shoot their scenes together.
Yeah, you’re watching two living legends perform together. I didn’t really have any scenes with Shirley, as such, but I was in the background of a scene she was in. The day I met her, I walked onto set and she was dressed in her costume, with this amazing hat and everything. And someone was playing piano and she was singing. And just to walk onto set and see Shirley MacLaine looking incredible and singing this amazing song, I just thought, “Wow, this is a bit of a moment.” [Laughs]
Later that day, they filmed a scene with Maggie and Shirley. And I just have to walk through the scene with a tray and then leave the room, basically. So as soon as I left the room, I stood near the director’s monitor and watched the rest of the scene. And literally, all of the crew was around the monitor. The chemistry between the two of them was just incredible. It was a bit like watching a master class. It was a great experience to have.
Get a sneak peek at "Downton Abbey" Season 3 right here:
“Downton Abbey” has inspired a lot of fashion trends with its costumes, but it seems like you don’t get to enjoy them very much. You’re stuck in that maid’s uniform.
Yeah, I don’t really get to enjoy them during work. But it would be kind of weird if Anna turned up in a ball gown. [Laughs] You would kind of wonder what’s going on.
Do you ever wish you were playing a Crawley daughter, and you could just sit around in pretty dresses all day?
I don’t, really. I mean, I love the costumes, and I’m always saying to the girls: “Wow, you look amazing! What’s that made of?” Because I love fashion myself. But I love playing Anna. I don’t think I’d choose to play anybody else. I really took a shine to her when I read the script, so yeah, I wouldn’t change her for the world.
You guys look so different in person. Do you get recognized a lot, or do people not even realize you’re Anna?
Season 3 is just ending in the U.K., and actually this time around, I’ve been recognized more. It took quite a while for me, because, hopefully, I look very different out of the costume. But this year, probably because of the press attention the show’s had and events like the Emmys, people have seen us as ourselves a little bit more.
Everybody just seems to love the show. “When’s it coming back?” “We’re missing it!” “What happens?... No, don’t tell me what happens!” It’s a really warm feeling to be a part of something that people love so much. When I love a show and I really get excited about watching it, I can’t wait to see the next episode. I’m a bit like that with “Homeland” at the moment. I’m obsessed with “Homeland.” It brings you so much excitement and joy to find a show that you’re really into, and it’s just so lovely that so many people are getting that experience from “Downton.”
[Related: 'Downton Abbey' Season 3 Preview: The Cast Reveals What's to Come]
A belated congratulations on your Emmy nomination this year.
Oh, thank you! Thank you very much.
And the show has done really well at the Emmys as well. What’s the cast’s reaction been to all the acclaim the show has received?
We’re all just still so pleased by it. It’s still just a novelty for us. We all believed in the show when we started filming it, but I don’t think any of us would have ever dreamed of it becoming the success that it has. Especially overseas, and here in the States, which is such a huge market in terms of television and film. It’s just such a joy, really, for us. I think we’re all just really enjoying the experience and making the most of it and knowing that these things can’t last forever, so you have to make the most of what’s happening at the moment. It’s just great fun.
Finally, we're just wondering: With a period piece like this, is there ever an issue with someone’s iPhone getting in the shot -- something anachronistic like that popping up on the show?
We’re very vigilant on that. We have a great continuity team and historical advisor who’s extremely strict on none of that happening: Alistair Bruce, who is incredible. He’s been with us from the beginning. He’s on the set pretty much all the time, just in case we have questions, to make sure the dinner scenes are being served in the right way. Even if we turn a bed down, how to do that; he’d teach us the correct way that they would’ve done it at the time. Yeah, the detail is quite in depth. And if anyone’s iPhone did get into the shot, they would absolutely be in trouble. [Laughs]
Season 3 of “Downton Abbey” premieres Sunday, 1/6 (check local listings) on PBS.